Let’s temper the rhetoric about civil-military relations

As Lawfire readers know, I am a fan of Major Matt Cavanaugh, but I disagree with much (but not all) of his recent post, “Losing Our Profession: The Dire Consequences of a More Partisan Military.” Allow me to share a less “dire” perspective as someone who served three and half decades in the military through multiple administrations, and who has studied civil-military relations since authoring a rather well-known essay, The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.

Matt’s concern seems to be this:

I believe we should be concerned with growing partisanship in the U.S. military that is threatening our military’s fundamental norm of non-partisanship. The military has long held on to non-partisanship to prevent politics from dividing our troops and separating us from society. But this supremely important norm appears to be changing—for the worse.

Matt seems to equate “growing partisanship” with military members claiming party affiliation.  Accordingly, he frets that:

[In] “1976, when surveyed, 55 percent of officers said they were “independent” or “non-partisan” or “unaffiliated” with a party. In 2009, the same question was asked and the number was down to 16 percent.”

Should we want to return to that “nonpartisan” era? I should hope not. I was in the service in 1976, and before we get too dewy-eyed about the military of that time, we should not forget that this “nonpartisan” force of Matt’s imagination had distinct ideological views, even if a majority of its officers did not sign-up as members of a political party. The military of 1976 barred women from virtually every job which could lead to advancement, and not only officially excluded gays and lesbians from its ranks, it actively hunted those who managed to join and discharged them.

That’s not all. As USA Today said in 2013, the military of the 1970s was one where “racial tensions and drug abuse were widespread.” Additionally, it reported:

“The army in the 1970s was a terrible organization,” said Conrad Crane, a retired Army officer and chief of historical services at the Army Heritage and Education Center. Within a decade the U.S. military had solved most of its problems and was on its way to today’s volunteer force.

The last line is interesting, especially if one takes a look at a study Matt links us to several times in his essay. Although Matt doesn’t quote this part, that study is forced to admit that today’s military (which Matt sees as increasing partisan) nevertheless “is not predominately poor, African American or uneducated [and] it has likewise proven more militarily effective and (probably) less costly that the conscript force it replaced.”

In other words, many of the serious social and indeed, political problems that plagued the “nonpartisan” military of the 1970s are significantly diminished in today’s armed forces. Furthermore, during this alleged ‘heyday’ of nonpartisanship in the late 1970s, public confidence in the military was 15 points (and sometimes more) lower than it is today.

So, no, I’m not nostalgic for the supposedly “non-partisan” military of 1976 that Matt holds up for emulation.

I also believe Matt misapprehends how people (and especially young people who comprise so much of the military) view party identification these days. In a recently released poll of Millennials, Reuters found that “their support for Democrats over Republicans for Congress slipped by about 9 percentage points over the past two years, to 46 percent overall.” Reuters cautioned, however, that:

Young voters represent an opportunity and a risk for both parties, said Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York City.

“They’re not as wedded to one party,” Green said. “They’re easier to convince than, say, your 50- or 60-year-olds who don’t really change their minds very often.”

This fits with my own experience teaching young people: when the facts and arguments are cogently presented to them, they’ll typically make their own judgments, and won’t reflexively align themselves with whatever some political party platform or an individual influencer might happen to advocate.

President Donald J. Trump greets service members during a troop talk, Nov. 5, 2017, at Yokota Air Base, Japan. (Photo Credit: DoD photo by Airman 1st Class Juan Torres)

The military is hardly as homogenous in its views as many narratives would have you believe. According to a poll from last fall, it is true that the military as a whole is more supportive of their commander-in-chief than the general public, but the officer corps is rather similar to the public in its opinion of the President. Furthermore, my bet is that some critics would be surprised to know that members of the military (30 percent) label white nationalists as posing a significant danger, “more than many international hot spots, like Syria (27 percent), Pakistan (25 percent), Afghanistan (22 percent) and Iraq (17 percent).”

Regardless, there is nothing inherently evil or unprofessional about belonging to a political party. Personally, I’ve always been a registered independent, but I never questioned someone’s professionalism simply because in their private life they chose to identify with a political party on voter rolls. In fact, one could easily argue that it is healthy for a democracy when the members of its armed forces to remain connected in a lawful way to political discourse. Of course, maintaining the appearance of non-partisanship can be complicated when, for example, a non-military spouse becomes active in partisan politics, but that is an issue not confined to the military, but to other professions in American society (see e.g., here and here).

In any event, nobody should assume that simply because someone has not registered with a party or, for that matter, voted, that they have no opinion about political issues, to include partisan ones.

Likewise, are we to assume that simply because someone registers a party membership they will, ipso facto, be partisan in the execution of their professional duties? That certainly is not what I’ve observed, and not just among military professionals. Judges are only one example of professional who may hold distinctly partisan views, but who nevertheless regularly set them aside (hopefully) and conduct themselves impartially in the courtroom and in their formal opinions.

Military professionals in particular are routinely called upon to compartmentalize their personal views when performing their official duties so as to insulate themselves from inappropriate decision-making. For example, Roman Catholics comprise the largest faith group in the military, but they are required to operate in an environment where key tenets of their religion – such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion – cannot be allowed to compromise their official actions.

Additionally, military leaders in combat especially must mentally sequester their personal feelings, such as their affection for their troops if that affection could compromise the paramount responsibility to the security of the nation as a whole.

This is because the warfighting mission necessitates leaders sending them into situations where it is inevitable some will be killed or injured. When leaders find they are not able to handle the unavoidable sacrifice of their troops in order to protect the country, the best realize it’s time to leave the profession. This is precisely what happened to then Marine major Nate Fick. As he recorded his reason for leaving the Marine Corps in his magnificent memoir, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, Fick said:

“Great Marine commanders, like all great warriors, are able to kill that which they love most – their men. It’s a fundamental law of warfare. Twice I had cheated it. I couldn’t tempt fate again.”

Setting aside one’s political druthers is a vastly less demanding decision than the one Fick wrestled with, and most military professionals do so instinctively. An illustration: I deployed for Operation Desert Fox which was in the midst of Congressional efforts to impeach Bill Clinton. Despite the uncertainty of Clinton’s future, as well as his unpopularity in the military, the orders he gave to send servicemembers into harms’ way were obeyed without question (even as some say the operation was concocted to distract attention from the impeachment scandal).

Claiming a “crisis” in civil-military relations as the title to Matt’s essay suggests is a perennial favorite among academics and pundits. Almost 25 years ago Dick Kohn virtually founded the “crisis” school of civil military relations with his eponymous essay Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations. The intellectual problem? The crisis never materialized. Instead, we’ve seen a military that has, despite all sorts of pressures through administrations of both parties, remained dutifully adherent to the Constitution.

Along that line Matt says that he was at a conference recently where he believes the assertion was made that there was no issue today with civil-military relations because there is no real possibility of a coup. I’m pretty sure I was at the same conference and I agree there is no possibility of a coup involving today’s military, but my takeaway was somewhat different: the civil-military relations issue the Framers were concerned about was the physical threat that a professional military might pose, not what seems to energize critics today: the idea that military professionals, active or retired, might engage in policy debates.

However, I do agree with Matt and others that the professional ideal is – and should remain – that the serving military ought to be apolitical. That said, the reality today is that everything has been politicized, and even the best-intended expressions by officers in uniform can appear to be supporting a partisan goal. This means it is almost impossible for officers to be apolitical as they might aspire, but this doesn’t mean that they are nefariously attempting to inject partisan ideology into their actions.

What about retired military speaking out on issues? I urge everyone to read Ohio State professor Chris Gelpi’s 2016 essay (“Retired Generals are People Too!”) wherein he warns that his: “research (with Peter Feaver) suggests that by recusing themselves from political discourse, American veterans would be withholding from our nation a distinct set of political values, beliefs, and attitudes that should remain a part of our national debate.”

Gelpi also added that the “beliefs and experiences of military veterans have shaped American foreign policy for the past 240 years, and we should allow them to continue to do so.” He says that ‘the absence of veterans’ voices from the policy making process may have contributed to American involvement in some of the military conflicts, such as Iraq and Libya, that are so controversial.”

Like Matt, on the subject of partisan endorsements by retired officers, I am not a fan.  Ditto for collective actions like group letters signed by X number of flag officers.  But I also don’t think they presage “dire consequences” as Matt asserts.  In that regard, let’s give the American people a little credit.  I invite attention to this part of Gelpi’s essay:

[“W]e put too little faith in the American people when we assume that they cannot distinguish between the political opinion of a retired military officer and her professionalism in following orders while on active duty.  Indeed, as I noted above, the available evidence suggests that the public responds quite strongly to military expertise when asked about military operations but pays little attention to the views of military officers when deciding their vote. Thus the public seems to have some sense of when the military speaks from professional expertise and when they voice a political opinion.”

Gelpi’s observation is especially relevant with respect to those who dismiss the importance from a civil-military relations perspective of the overwhelming evidence that the public is very satisfied with its military. (Polls consistently show that the armed forces are the institution in government in which the public has the most confidence generally, and the most confidence specifically as to the military protecting national security).

Some critics suggest that the public’s admiration of the military is the result of the public not knowing much about the armed forces. However, isn’t that the case with most institutions? Do we think that public admiration for the Supreme Court is irrelevant because the vast majority of the public doesn’t know how the Supreme Court works? As Gelpi indicates, let’s have a little more faith in the American people. I believe the public knows enough about the military to warrant its trust in it. My own experience has been that when people actually meet the young people in the armed forces, they come away with more admiration, not less.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) David L. Norquist, and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provide testimony on the DOD posture and fiscal year 2019 budget onApril. 26, 2018. DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

Perhaps even more remarkable is that a December 2017 Gallup poll found that military officers rate second only to nurses as having the highest standards of honesty and ethics. I say “remarkable” because of the avalanche of bad publicity in 2017 about retired Lt Gen Michael Flynn, not to mention criticisms (which I think was/is overwrought) of too many generals serving in the Administration.   I believe only the most churlish would say now that retired Marine general Jim Mattis has not served well as our Secretary of Defense.

Matt also complains that a “study of 500 West Point cadets and National Defense University colonels found that over one-third had observed or shared insulting, rude, or disdainful comments about elected leaders.” Sure, I agree that people need to return to civil discourse and not use inflammatory or insulting comments about anyone. Civil means civil – and that means that we – military and civilian alike – must work harder at being polite, and trying to be respectful to all.

Nevertheless, in today’s hyper-polarized political climate – and especially given the public’s low opinion of Congress – I am surprised that it would be only one-third of any group of Americans who would have “disdainful comments” about elected leaders. As much as I would want to see a more tempered dialogue in the military and in our society in general, rather than prove Matt’s point, I think the study is evidence of a remarkable amount of forbearance among those in uniform.

Let’s pose the issue a little differently.  Are “dire” fears about the military profession as a whole really supported by a study that shows that despite today’s extraordinarily divisive political environment, two-thirds of West Point cadets and National Defense University colonels had nonetheless not observed or shared any insulting, rude, or disdainful comments about elected leaders?  The reality is that however regrettable such commentary may be, it’s occurred within the ranks throughout our history (and especially during the Revolution and the Civil War)…yet the Republic has not suffered “dire” consequences.

In truth, in a democracy that treasures free speech, there is a limit to the wisdom of trying to suppress every untoward remark that someone in uniform might make about an elected leader. This may be one reason why Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (which criminalizes “contemptuous language” by officers about certain elected officials) is so limited, and why the Manual for Courts-Martial counsels that “if not personally contemptuous, adverse criticism of one of the officials or legislatures named in the article in the course of a political discussion, even though emphatically expressed, may not be charged as a violation of the article.”

Do we have issues that bear watching about civil-military relations?  Absolutely!  As I explained at the Army War College Strategy conference recently, I believe that technology – particularly social media, big data, and even neuroscience – could operate to change not only how military leaders relate to their subordinates and the public, but also to change society itself. The “civil” of civil-military relations may evolve into an entity that is markedly different from today, and this could – and probably will – impact civil-military relations. But all that is quite different from the perils Matt sees.

To be crystal clear, we certainly do have work to do, but excitedly proclaiming that we are on the cusp of “dire consequences” unhelpfully overstates and, even worse, obfuscates the real issues.  In fact, over-hyping issues in civil-military relations plays into partisan politics.

How?  Consider that journalist Ross Douthat observed in the New York Times recently that the US won a great victory over ISIS, but “nobody seemed to notice.” Douthat cites a number of reasons for the lack of attention, but most interesting is this:

But this is also a press failure, a case where the media is not adequately reporting an important success because it does not fit into the narrative of Trumpian disaster in which our journalistic entities are all invested.

In other words, conjuring up impending apocalypse in civil-military relations can become another weapon which, whether intended or not, may be used by critics invested in the “narrative of Trumpian disaster” to try to delegitimize an area in which the Administration has enjoyed, as Douhet points out, some undeniable success: national security.  Addressing the perennial challenges of civil-military relations isn’t facilitated when they get wrapped up with political narratives about specific individuals.

Rather, let’s work together to calmly but assiduously address civil-military issues in a productively bipartisan way.  Doing so could become an example that others could follow as we address the myriad of challenges of today and the coming years.

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